Afrophobia is destroying the African dream

We all need to re-embrace the dream of African unity and demand freedom of movement for all Africans on the continent.

A street vendor sells food and mobile phone airtime vouchers on a roadside at dusk in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 29, 2018
A street vendor sells food, refreshments and mobile phone airtime vouchers on a roadside at dusk in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Sunday, July 29, 2018 [Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg]

Speaking at the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 17, Africa’s richest person, Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote, complained that he faces far more obstacles travelling around Africa than Europeans ever do.

“I have to apply for 35 different visas on my passport [to travel freely across Africa],” Dangote said. “I can assure you that Patrick [Pouyanne, CEO of Total Energies] doesn’t need 35 visas on a French passport, which means [he has] freer movement than myself in Africa.”

Even for an uber-wealthy businessman with near unlimited means like Dangote, the continent’s fragmented and discriminatory visa regime is clearly a considerable inconvenience. For millions of African migrants, however, it is a major obstacle to safety, stability, success and prosperity.

Indeed, stringent visa regimes discriminating against Africans are not only inconveniencing industrialists and harming the continent’s economic development, but also destroying migrant lives and dreams and hindering efforts to achieve true African unity.

Today, while most Westerners are free to roam the continent and exploit its socioeconomic potential with ease, Africans who want to move, for whatever reason, are swimming against the current.

This was not always the case.

In the 1990s, my father ran a modest butchery and liquor store on Cameron Street, a busy road that stretched from the outskirts of the central business district to the less-endowed environs of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.

Small and nondescript, the shop was surrounded by many thriving businesses that sold cheap furniture, beds, clothes, bags, blankets, and shoes. It catered mainly to revellers and shoppers who lived in the nearby Mbare township, a low-income neighbourhood, as well as workers who commuted from places such as Chitungwiza and outlying rural areas. Among our regular patrons were Mozambican traders who sold cheap watches across the city and kept their stock at our shop.

In those years, an ever-increasing number of young entrepreneurs from Central and West Africa were opening up small shops across Harare. These young traders sold distinct, never-before-seen-in-Harare goods imported from India, China, and the UAE: radios, watches, bracelets, chains, and appliances.

I frequented these new places on occasion to buy a trinket or two whenever I had money, or simply to have a look at the latest mini gadgets to hit the market.

Back then, the increasing diversity of the high street did not bother or alarm many, because it was the norm.

When I was a student at the Prince Edward High School in Harare, I had teachers from across the continent. My history teacher, for example, was a calm and strict gentleman from Ghana, Mr Ayisa, who spoke with a fascinating Ghanaian accent. Ms Khosi and Mr Lowe, our mathematics and science teachers, respectively, were South Africans. Prince Edward also had students from as far afield as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, South Africa, and Tanzania, to name a few. One Prine Edward pupil from my era, Menzi Simelane, went on to serve as South Africa’s national director of public prosecutions.

The school cultivated a vibrant pan-African community. This sentiment of unity was supported by the many reminders of our collective colonial past and interconnected struggles for liberation. Even the streets we walked were named after leading freedom fighters from across Africa, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, and Samora Machel.

Back then, Harare was a diverse, welcoming city buzzing with potential. It seemed as if we were truly moving towards achieving the unity and collective advancement African leaders envisaged when they established the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union (AU), in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May 1963.

Things have changed significantly since those days of my youth.

Zimbabwe, like most other African nations, decided to turn its back on the dream of African unity and went on to legislate Afrophobia.

In a move that completely destroyed the goodwill which had seen Harare blossom into a welcoming destination for resourceful and hard-working migrants from across Africa, in 2013 the government of Zimbabwe threatened to close foreign-owned shops operating in sectors it had previously earmarked for locals.

Then, in March 2018, the Zimbabwe government officially amended the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act to restrict ownership of businesses in 12 reserved sectors to “citizens of Zimbabwe”.

Those sectors are – public transport (buses, taxis and car hire services); retail and wholesale trade; barber shops, hairdressing and beauty salons; employment agencies; real estate agencies; valet services; grain milling; bakeries; tobacco grading and packaging; advertising agencies; provision of local arts and crafts and their marketing and distribution; and artisanal mining.

Last October, Sithembiso Nyoni, the minister of industry and commerce, warned that foreign nationals running tuckshops or wholesale businesses without permits risk arrest. Migrants from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Mozambique and Zambia run most of the tuckshops, or “canteens”, in Zimbabwe. The government has also launched many large-scale crackdowns on undocumented African migrants in recent times, further signalling their determination to ensure Zimbabwe is not a destination for everyday Africans looking for a better life.

In 2013, I was shocked by the Zimbabwean government’s move to outlaw and attempt to close down businesses owned by African migrants. I thought it was a deplorable renunciation of African unity that was largely unique on the continent.

But I was wrong. In no time, this Afrophobic malaise has spread like wildfire in the region.

Botswana promulgated the Industrial Development Act of 2019 and its Regulations of 2020 to reserve certain sectors for its citizens only. In 2020, the provincial government of Gauteng, South Africa’s richest province, attempted to ban foreigners from opening businesses in townships.

There is also widespread displeasure with Ethiopian and Somali migrants running spazas, small informal grocery shops operated from residential premises in townships, in these countries.

Meanwhile, authorities in Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, Malawi, Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya have cracked down on undocumented migrants.

And last July, Black African foreigners in Tunisia were targets of organised racist assaults by Tunisians instigated by President Kais Saied. He falsely accused Black Africans of trying to alter his country’s demographic makeup through extensive immigration.

A new brand of hardline anti-immigration politics has swept through Africa that threatens to asphyxiate the AU’s noble quest to eventually establish freedom of movement, work, and residence.

So, the timely observations made by Dangote and the adverse experiences of migrants across the continent speak to the systemic failings crippling the African dream.

At school, I, along with thousands of others, was most privileged to experience the sweet zenith of African expertise and friendship.

For years, in downtown Harare, I witnessed how largely underprivileged communities lived and worked with so-called foreigners.

I befriended migrants of all backgrounds, everyday Africans who were smart, dedicated and savvy businesspeople in their own right.

They did not steal market share from Zimbabweans in their business dealings.

Instead, they brought with them new commercial practices, improved the marketplace, and seamlessly integrated into society.

As Dangote advised African political and business leaders in Kigali, Africa is a sorely divided and challenging place to manoeuvre.

Spurred by the divisive antics of neo-fascist politicians, amid socioeconomic tribulations, Africans are increasingly looking inwards and othering their fellow  Africans.

In January 2018, the AU adopted the Free Movement of Persons (FMP) Protocol. It calls for member states to give the nationals of other member states the right to visa-free entry into their territory, right of residence, and right to establish a business.

As of August 2023, however, only 33 of the 55 member states had signed the FMP Protocol, and just four – Mali, Rwanda, Niger, and Sao Tome and Principe – had ratified it.

Africa needs to do better to defeat the scourge of Afrophobia and bring unity back to the continent.

Freedom of movement is essential to creating a single market and boosting economic outcomes across the continent. It would also provide security and stability to the millions of Africans who have found homes and set up businesses outside of their countries of birth.

As proven by the European Union, the freedom of movement is an economic game changer.

Politicians and citizens alike must view Dangote’s statement as a wake-up call.

Do not close shops. Rather, open more.

All Africans must be afforded an opportunity to exploit Africa’s immense socioeconomic potential.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.